Written by Roy Smith – SRUSR President (member since 1971, past SRUSR Secretary and Chair and also past President of Staffordshire Rugby Union)
The origins of SRUSR lie in an amicable breakaway from the North Midlands Society in the early 1960s.The driving force behind the move was Maurice Clift, who defied popular opinion that Staffordshire, without any first-class Clubs, was too small to sustain its own referees’ society.
The official launch of the Society was in 1964 with Maurice as the Secretary and Appointments Secretary. It was his passion for, and often belligerent promotion of, the Society, Staffordshire and its referees, which saw the Society grow in size and influence. The national structure for officiating the Game was vastly different from today. Often Clubs approached Societies or individual referees and invited them to referee games, and appointments depended largely on an individual’s reputation and record. The senior panel (the County panel) was the ultimate goal for Society referees and SRUSR was soon producing referees of this standard. The first Staffordshire senior national level referee was Ron Cotterill, an Estate Agent from Whitchurch, who was unlucky not to referee at international level despite a highly acclaimed performance refereeing a touring Springbok side. Others followed: Peter Ingles, Stuart Lister, John Bell amongst them. All flew the Staffordshire flag across the country and grew the Society’s and Maurice’s reputation of being able to produce quality referees.
Ron, in addition to great on-field performances, was known throughout the Game as a tremendous after-dinner speaker. It was customary that Societies would host an annual dinner and Staffordshire’s, organised by Maurice and “headlined” by Ron, became the ticket that everyone wanted. Staffordshire Clubs would all have a table, and guest speakers, often press-ganged by Maurice, included the superstars of the day. The menu at the “Top of the World” venue in Stafford never changed – trout with almonds, Duck a l’orange and Black Forest gateau!
Commemorative mug celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of SRUSR
The small size of the County had a great advantage, which Maurice exploited, in that the Clubs got to know the referees. This link was further cemented when, in the mid-1980s, the Maurice Clift Award was initiated to recognise the County’s Club which offered the best hospitality to referees. The trophy, a stuffed owl dressed as a referee in a case, became a prized and coveted addition to the winning Club’s trophy cabinet. Maurice and the Society were honoured when in 1985 he was elected County President.
The national picture was changing and appointments beyond the County began to grow. These “exchanges” would involve a car full of referees travelling together to another county and SRUSR hosting a returning group. These allowed more opportunities for referee development and were eagerly anticipated by aspiring referees. The annual exchange with Cornwall became a thing of legend with stories of adventure on and off the field long outliving the participants’ refereeing careers!
As the Game continued to develop and change, so did the demands on referees to be fully prepared and fit. Referee assessors played a great role in this, and the Society had several of note. Colin MacDonald, Brian Knott and Peter Harvey, all sadly no longer with us, all made major contributions to the Society’s progress and that of its members.
The Professional era and the introduction of leagues at all levels created a new structure of refereeing appointments and SRUSR joined with other Midlands Societies to form a Federation. This created a hierarchy and outlined career paths for referees at all levels. The drive to recruit younger referees and encourage diversity and inclusivity saw female and junior members joining the Society and being appointed. The Lichfield Academy was formed and began producing a rich crop of young referees into the next generation.
New sponsors supported the Society’s increasingly professional management and in 2017 the Society “incorporated “and became a limited company. It has since become independent of Staffordshire Rugby Union, but remains an integral part of the County scene and enjoys representation on the County Management Committee.
Commemorative whistle celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of SRUSR
Since celebrating its 50th birthday, the growth of the Society has continued both in numbers, diversity and quality. On and off the field, SRUSR and its members are contributing to the playing, enjoyment and spirit of the Game throughout Staffordshire and beyond. At the heart of this organisation are the men and women who have supported the vital role of match officials in changing times and served the great Game we all love.
There are now two referees on the Premiership panel (out of 15 on the list), Craig Maxwell-Keys and Greg MacDonald, who are both SRUSR members. Not bad for a Society that was too small to survive! Well done Maurice and all that followed him.